I perched on the edge of a tiny chair as my scissors marched around crisp paper, freeing yellow ducks from their construction-paper prison. I worried how I'd finish all the day's chores after work that night.
Homework, errands, supper, and too many loads of laundry consumed my life. Forget relaxing. Who has time? I looked out the window of the teachers' lounge at the kindergarten children chasing each other through 15 minutes of recess and wondered when my time to have fun would return.
"My son turned 30 yesterday," Chris said, startling me from my reverie.
"Does it make you feel old?" I asked, secretly wishing my own children weren't quite so young.
"Well, not as old as some other things," she said. "He doesn't live close by, and we couldn't see him on his birthday. I miss the cakes and presents on the day of his birth - it just isn't the same five days later."
I nodded. My mother, too, needed to connect with me on my birthday, the day when I was most her child.
The conversation drifted, and Chris asked me how it felt to be working again after so many years home with the children.
She understood my frustration and fatigue. She had enjoyed staying home with her children, but when she went back to work, she discovered something she hadn't
considered: Her children learned things could be different and still good. If the cookies weren't made exactly the same or if supper happened at 6 p.m. instead of 5, no one starved. They learned where the bathroom cleaner was and how to use it.
"I remember those days well, Julia," she said with a sigh. "Some of them I wouldn't want to revisit at all. But some I look back on and chuckle."
I looked down at the ducks and sighed. Here it comes, I thought. Another mother telling me to enjoy my children while they are still young. "Before you know it they'll be gone, and then it'll be quiet," these moms often say. Honestly though, right then I'd have liked a bit of quiet. And I did enjoy my children; I just wished I didn't have to enjoy them quite so much some days.
"Vacuum cleaner marks," she said.
"Vacuum cleaner marks?" I asked, wondering if I'd missed something while I was feeling sorry for myself.
"The marks the vacuum cleaner leaves after you've done a whole room," she said with a laugh. "The last thing I did in each room was vacuum, and when I looked back, the carpet stood at attention with those lovely clean-looking lines. I knew it was clean when I saw that.
"When the kids came home from school they trotted across the room, leaving footprints in their wake. It took less than five minutes for my clean house to look lived-in again."
Unlocking my front door after work, I dreamed of my own home decorated with crisscross marks from the vacuum cleaner. But four children tumbled through the door after me, and the dream popped like a bubble from a sink of soapy water.
Later, a full bottle of pickles spilled on the carpet, homework forgotten at school, a fight about who got the blue cup last, and a ruined piece of artwork filled my evening.
I had almost forgotten about my conversation with Chris when shouts and thumps from the family room forced me to fling my dish towel over my shoulder and march in that direction like a general ready for battle. My footsteps reverberated through the house.
But I didn't want to deal with another fight. I really wanted to crawl under something and hide, escape from the myriad chores and constant squabbling echoing off walls. I dropped down onto the floor to retrieve a thrown book.
Instead, I leaned over and peered under the couch - a potential retreat from chaos. Although toys were crammed into every inch of space under there, I mentally calculated how fast I could yank them out and crawl under before anyone noticed.
"What ya doing, Mom?" questioned my 4-year-old daughter. Her head cocked to one side, she looked like a cocker spaniel with her big blue eyes and pigtails that stuck out at odd angles.
"Looking for a place to hide," I said with a sigh as I flopped onto my back.
"Can I come?" She giggled and plopped down beside me. "Oh, Mommy, I don't think we'll fit under there."
I didn't want to tell her I was thinking of an escape route rather than a new game.
As she tucked herself under my arm, she grabbed a book and held it in front of my face with a "Please read it, just once." Dirty dishes scattered around the kitchen and a catalog of chores longer than my grocery list haunted me.
But, as I searched for an excuse, I became aware of something not often heard at my house - silence. The squabbling had stopped, and my three older children were moving closer. Like stray kittens who've been presented with a saucer of milk, they closed in on the coveted prize. I opened the book and began to read.
My voice washed over us like a blanket, chores and homework losing their importance with each turned page. Warm bodies, that minutes ago had been cold and angry, cuddled and curled around each other.
They snuggled in for one last story, and my mind drifted across the turbulent waves of the day and came to rest on the shore of contentment. Dishes undone, but reconnection achieved. Maybe we should end every day elbow to elbow and toe to toe.
And maybe I can wait a few more years for vacuum cleaner marks that last longer than five minutes.